HONG KONG—A Hong Kong court on Friday found nine pro-democracy activists guilty of criminal contempt of court for refusing to leave a protest site during the 2014 "Occupy" demonstrations which brought major roads in the city to a halt.
The charge relates to a court-ordered injunction to clear a protest camp in the Mong Kok district of the Chinese-ruled financial hub after nearly 79 days of street occupations pushing for full democracy.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" formula that promises it a high degree of autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland, including an independent judiciary.
But a series of court cases against about 100 young democracy activists has shaken confidence in the city's vaunted rule of law and critics fear a watering down of its freedoms and creeping interference by Communist Party rulers in Beijing.
In a summary of his judgment, the judge, Andrew Chan, said the nine defendants had refused to leave the site despite repeated warnings from bailiffs.
The activists had "banded together to fight for their beliefs" and their actions "amounted to a serious interference with the administration of justice", he wrote.
"Having considered all the evidence, the court is satisfied that they are guilty of criminal contempt... This case is not about the right or wrong of the 'Occupy' movement."
Jailed democracy leader Joshua Wong, who spearheaded the 2014 protests and also faced the same charge, was present in court on Friday. He and 10 others have already "admitted liability" in defying the court injunction.
Supporters of the bespectacled Wong sang him a birthday song in the courtroom to mark his 21st birthday.
"Thank you ... let's keep going," shouted Wong, who is serving a six-month term on a separate "unlawful assembly" charge.
No date was given for sentencing, with all defendants facing possible jail terms. There is no maximum penalty for contempt of court, a defense lawyer told Reuters.
On October 1, China's National day, tens of thousands of protesters marched in an "anti-authoritarian rule" march that called for the resignation of the city's top legal official, Rimsky Yuen, over the jailing of activists.
Reuters had reported that Yuen had overruled several other senior public prosecutors to seek jail terms for Wong and two other activists, Nathan Law and Alex Chow.
Hong Kong's senior officials have strongly denied any political agenda and say they've strictly abided by legal procedures and the rule of law. (Reporting by Venus Wu; Additional reporting by Pak Yiu; Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Nick Macfie)